Tourism in Turkey at the Mercy of Security Issues

With its beautiful monuments, landscapes, seashores and grandiose archaeologic sites, the Sublime Porte has, for the last fifteen years considerably stepped up its efforts to develop mass tourism. These were successful until 2015, when a series of events occurred during three “bleak years” to thwart this development. While the tourist trade has been on the rise again since 2018, the proclaimed goals of 70 million visitors and 70 billion dollars seem over-ambitious in view of the conflicts that still endanger the region.

The Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii) in Istanbul, one of the most visited monuments in Turkey

To begin with, the wave of terrorist attacks in 2015 and 2016 brought about an abrupt slowdown in tourist trade growth. Those were the years when the threat of terrorism in Europe was in everyone’s minds, especially after the 2015 Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan massacres in Paris. These created a feeling of insecurity which was all the more acute as the war in Syria was at its height, the Russians having come to the aid of Bachar Al-Assad’s regime in September, when it was in great difficulty.

Terrorist attacks on all sides

On Turkish territory, jihadist groups wreaked havoc in Istanbul (January 2016 on Sultanahmet square, March 2016 on avenue Istikal, January 2017 at the Reina discothèque), in Ankara (October 2015 near the central railway terminal) and at the Syrian border (20 July 2015 in Suruç and 20 August 2016 in Gaziantep). Besides which, the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK) claimed responsibility for attacks perpetrated in Ankara on 1 February and 13 March 2016, and in Istanbul on 10 December of that same year. And finally, in 2015, attacks ascribed to the Marxist-Leninist Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front (DHKP-C), targeted the US Consulate in Istanbul, the police and the Dolmabahçe Palace.

Moreover, the breakdown of the ceasefire between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Turkish government in July of that same year, plunged South-West Turkey into a cycle of violence. This conflict prompted many countries to classify an extensive region as “to be avoided except for an overriding reason” in addition to the Syrian border zone, already designated as “to be avoided absolutely.” All of these attacks propagated an image of general insecurity and permanent danger souring dreams of rest and recreation in Turkey.

Tensions with Russia

To which were added, a month after the start of the Russian military intervention in Syria, several incidents between Moscow and Ankara revealing their animosity over this issue. On Tuesday 24 November 2015, the Turks shot down a Russian warplane over the Turkish-Syrian border provoking a test of strength between the two capitals. Among various retaliation measures, the Russian government deprived travel agencies of the right to sponsor tours to Turkey. This seriously harmed Turkey’s tourist industry, since Russia provided the second largest contingent of tourists (nearly 4.5 million in 2015, i.e. 12% of the total number of visitors that year, a figure which dropped to 0.8 million in 2016, i.e. less than 3.5% of that year’s total), just behind Germany (5.2 million in 2014)

The failed coup

In July 2016, the attempted coup against Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s regime definitely worsened the picture: many trips were cancelled and tourists’ confidence in Turkey was again shaken. The declaration of a state of emergency, not lifted until July 2018, and the wholesale purges which ensued, prompted many countries to warn their citizens against visiting Turkey. This was especially perceptible in the tensions that arose with Germany, the other major source of the Turkish tourist trade.

An aggressive publicity campaign

Since 2018, the Ministry of Culture and Communication has implemented a very aggressive publicity strategy involving monthly press releases which highlight the progress made in this or that area. For example: “In the tourist trade, reservations have increased by 100%” (8 March 2018), “2018, a record year: over 46 million tourists” (31 January 2019), “Still more tourists in May” (28 June 2019).

The 2018 tourist year
The 2018 tourist year
Increase of 21 % in the number of tourists, 22 % in the number of overnight stays and 12% in income. Source: Internet portal of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism

This effort at transparency has made it possible to trace statistical trends over time. Between 2001 and 2018, the number of tourists rose from 11 to 39 million, an increase of 350%. 2018 seems to have made up for the 2016 slowdown, thanks, in particular to the reconciliation with Russia, and the latest figures for 2019 seem to confirm this trend. Still, the goal of 70 million set for 2023 seems overambitious since it is well above the 2001–2018 rate of growth.

Number of tourists per year, with the objective of 2023 in red
Number of tourists per year, with the objective of 2023 in red

European boycott

While today the overall number of “tourists” is again increasing at the same rate as before 2015, this term refers to anyone entering Turkey with a tourist visa and spending at least one night in the country.1 Thus, nearly all the ten countries whence the number of “tourists” has grown between 2014 and 2018 (Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Iran, Iraq, Georgia, Romania) may be considered near neighbours, with the exception of Saudi Arabia and Israel2, and the GDP per capita of all those countries is lower than Turkey’s.

The ten countries with the largest increase in the number of tourists between 2014 and 2018
The ten countries with the largest increase in the number of tourists between 2014 and 2018

On the other hand, the statistics show that for Germany, Italy, the UK, the USA, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Austria, and Belgium, the number of tourists has shrunk over the same period. The largest decrease concerns Germany which up to 2014 was number one (5.3 million) and is now number two (4.5 million), a drop of 15%. The trend is even more accentuated for Italy (0.7 million to 0.3, i.e. a loss of 60% and the French contingent has dropped by 30% [from 1 to 0.7 million].

The ten countries with the largest decline in the number of tourists between 2015 and 2018
The ten countries with the largest decline in the number of tourists between 2015 and 2018

Decreasing overall income

Though there is no need to consult the tourist trade statistics to analyse Turkish policy changes, the figures do provide insights that go beyond governments and their policy declarations. Not only does Turkey look less towards the US and Europe than it used to do, but tourists from those countries are to a certain extent less attracted to Turkey. This is perceptible in terms of tourist trade revenues, for while the number of visitors has never been so high, the total revenues for 2018 [24 million dollars or 19.5 million pounds sterling] amount to less than in 2014 [27 million dollars, 22 million pounds sterling], on the basis of the same number of hotel nights [30 million].

The success of the ambitious plan to develop the tourist trade will require a peaceful political and security climate, but Turkey’s relations with its immediate neighbours [Syria, Iran, Russia, Cyprus] could rapidly jeopardise the intended goal. For while the influx of tourists from Russia was quickly restored after the conflict with Turkey was resolved, recovering the custom of tourists from other countries, especially from Europe, will require several years before the pre-2014 levels are reached. Only the image of a Turkey at peace can achieve this goal.

1Since 2011, there are no more Syrian tourists: they have “disappeared” from the official statistics.

2While this trend has been maintained for Israel in 2019, the statistics available for this year (from January to May) show a drop of 30% for Saudi Arabia.